I'm still stuck on this idea of people, myself included, measuring what we did or didn't do in alpine or winter climbing. Maybe because there's a tremendous amount of posing in these genres of climbing, and no real quantifiable definition of success other than reaching the summit and/or surviving. The tales that come back from these trips often read like the participants succeeded due to fantastic ability, toughness, training, etc. This interests me; I know I've come back from alpine climbing trips with the feeling that the climb took everything I had to give. But was that feeling real or had I just set my own limits and then bumped against them? And when I or anyone fails on a mountain/alpine/whatever climb we usually pull out all kinds of justifications. Too much avalanche hazard, too little snow, not enough ice, wind blowing the wrong direction, etc. Usually these "reasons" are presented as absolutes. "There wasn't enough ice to go up."
I suspect that often my and others achievements on any given day are not all that special in the mountains or on the ice, and our failures often more mental than real. By that I mean that if you put a large field of people on that face in the same conditions times would drop dramatically, success rates go up, etc. etc. Ueli Steck has shown this with his North Face ascents in the Alps. Now Ueli is my friend and a very talented guy, but he's not special genetically or even mentally (well, a bit special mentally). The fastest time on the Grand Teton is held not by any of the guides or well-known alpine climbers who have lived and worked in the range (and gone fast on a lot of routes) but by a runner with enough climbing skill to handle the technical challenges of the Grand.
I'm dancing around an idea here, trying to figure it out. Perhaps the most obvious example of a large pool of talent showing the actual potential of a mountain situation comes in paragliding. A competition day can be lousy for flying distance; weak thermals, bad wind, overcast, etc. etc. But if you set a competition task someone often completes it. Even on a day when the local pilots would all say no cross-country was possible. A little of the positive result comes from the field working together, but it's often one or two pilots who go off alone and make it to goal. Those pilots show the real potential of the day; if only a few pilots were sitting on launch they would be lazy and the day would be written off as "not good." How many climbs have I failed on for lack of vision?
To me this realization is cause for great optimism about the future of many mountain sports. 5.9 used to be hard; the rock hasn't changed, our raw strength hasn't changed dramatically, but now 5.9 is commonplace, a beginner can do it in street shoes. The north face of the Eigre was the be-all end-all route, worth dying for. Now a guy runs it in under four hours. Running a 30-foot waterfall was the absolute edge of the sport 25 years ago; now people are regularly going over 100 feet, and the "record" is closer to 200.
When we're in the mountains we're likely limited more by how we perceive the situation and our abilities than we are by the reality. If we put 100 top or even good athletes on a route in the same conditions the results would be mind-blowing, even in less than ideal conditions. A few years ago we tried to climb a north face in the Himalaya, and never really got going. A few other climbers showed up and sent it in four days, easy. I'm not arguing for pushing harder in the face of "stupid" danger, but trying to understand why the hard routes of yesterday are easy today, and why the impossible is often the easy when enough people put energy toward it.
This blog is likely to slow down for a bit, it's climbing season and I am so stoked to go and mess with my own limits and headspace, breathe clean air, move, smash some ice and get it ON! Happy winter!